What do I do with this Notre Dame Jacket?
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Was the mere act of shrugging myself into this pile of fleece and identity now a tacit political endorsement?
WASHINGTON (Catholic Online) - So I've got this jacket...
In those days, Notre Dame was slogging through a difficult football season, and the local department store offered it at 40% off well before the bowl bids were issued. Although my acceptance letter from Notre Dame's sister school, Saint Mary's College, was at the moment still agonizingly somewhere between Cincinnati and South Bend, my mother bought it, stashed it in her closet, and kept the tags on.
She laid it in my lap two weeks later. I held the golden thread of the ND logo against my bitten fingernails, examined the deep inside pocket where my Saint Mary's student ID and dorm room keys would press against my side. It was puffy and leprechaun-rich; I slid eighteen-year-old arms into the thick sleeves and there was no give at the elbows, holding them stiff and apart from my slumping shoulders, my easily bruised heart, my tendency to form an instantaneous dislike of women with better-conditioned hair than I. And though the lining hung heavy at the shoulders, and the quilting pressed against my back and hips, the jacket did not bend to me. I straightened to it.
It never once occurred to me that I had no right to throw the thing over my shoulders, this department store castoff which, by the time I was a junior, was well and truly my wintertime campus calling card. I was not enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. I had exchange classes but no senior finals at my brother school. There is no du lac diploma in my home.
Sometimes--too often-- I didn't treat the jacket as I should have. More than once, it hit the floor of my boyfriend's dorm room along with my hair ribbons, my sweatshirt, my bra... my knowledge of all things proper, smart, and Catholic, and yet totally hitting the floor anyway. The zipper pull clattered against the metal snaps of the outer shell as he dropped it on the carpet, a heavy swish of fabric and badly managed impulse.
I was wearing it on the day I admitted to yet another boyfriend that I'd cheated on him... months ago... with a seminarian. Then the jacket and I went to Confession. The fleece on the lower sleeve cradled my forehead as I stared at the dense beige carpet of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and said, "Okay, get this."
And more than once I dropped it, leprechaun-first, from the grip of two fingers into a clanking dorm washing machine, desperate to remove the stench of cigarette smoke, splattered alcohol, and the remaining contents of a classmate's stomach.
For all the falls and the tears and the upended fuzzy navels, we had Big Catholic Adventures, the jacket and I, fighting theological crimes on the mean streets of St. Joseph County. The first campus landmark at the end of the road connecting Saint Mary's to her elder brother is the Grotto, an outdoor replica of the Lourdes apparition site. Lake effect snow pelted the waterproof coating on several rapid hikes to and from Rosary sessions there; the flakes nestled in the creases of the hood flopped over my hair, sank between the rows of candles, and melted silently on my back, cooling the clenched, angry face of the leprechaun who crouched there.
"That thing still smells like a Saint Mary's dorm room," my mother said after my marriage, having long since deemed it safe to trash the receipt for a gift which was now fifteen years old and had been dragged through four states, seven apartment complexes, and every single disgusting highway gas station bathroom in the state of Florida. I could never detect the offending odor as I pulled the jacket from whichever closet it happened to inhabit at the moment. I'd lived with it, in it, for too long.
This past winter I taught writing at a Catholic college in Virginia. At one point, the department chair summoned me to discuss my student's instructor evaluations. I left my college jacket at home in exchange for a big-girl, Important Professor Lady trench coat.
"The students think you are very kind," she began, which was a surprise, as I often began essay feedback with the words: "If you end one more sentence on a formal essay with a smiley face emoticon, I will end you."
"Do you remember the day I sat in on your class?"
I nodded. That would be the afternoon I had originally designated as Ms. Ellis Is Exhausted and You Are Watching a Movie About Gerunds Day. Upon the arrival of the chair, it quickly became Let's Have a Writing Activity Describing the Things in Your Backpack and Stuck to the Ceiling Day.
"I noticed that you began class by saying the Hail Mary. You... prayed."
"Yes." I looked down at the trench coat, thin and formal across my knees. Praying was indeed an everyday practice, because ... well. Gerund movies are all I've got. Major celestial assistance is required.
"I think you should know that might make our non-Catholic students uncomfortable. You see, a large percentage of our student population isn't of your faith, and neither is the faculty--did you know that?"
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I blinked, sitting as we were directly across from a classroom which contained a prominent crucifix and a poster on the wall featuring the college mascot, which was, in fact, an enormous St. Bernard. "Well--" I said. "It just seems to me that at a Catholic college--I mean, where I went to school..."
"We don't pray in class here," she said. "I don't know of any professor who does."
I pressed my hands very tightly together against the chill in the room and looked at her and thought, I should've brought my other jacket.
It's strangely cool this May in Washington DC. The other day I opened the door to the coat closet, and the jacket hung there--green and blue, gold and silent. I put a hand out to it. And hesitated. As of late, there'd been email threads, phone conversations, and all-caps instant messages flung back and forth between my brothers and sisters in the Notre Dame family: Send President Obama an empty red envelope! Go to this website, pledge to pray a rosary! Write a letter to the student newspaper in support of academic freedom! Sign this petition! Withhold donations! Increase donations! Was the mere act of shrugging myself into this pile of fleece and identity now a tacit political endorsement?
My hand dropped slowly to my side. I'd noticed something. The lining was tearing; the very fabric holding the thing together was fraying along a dangerous edge.
And then my eyes dropped to the leprechaun. With his feet facing opposing directions, the left fist seems poised to punch the world. But the right? It... looked as if he was halfway ready to slug himself in the face.
I closed the closet door, leaned my forehead on the hard wall alongside. Because the thing is, I've got this jacket, and I'm not at all sure what to do with it.
Mary Beth Ellis, MFA, is a veteran educator and public speaker, house freelance writer for www.MorningWorksMedia.com, and the author of Drink to the Lasses. She is a contributing writer to Catholic Online
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